What does the Trevor Reed prisoner exchange mean for Brittney Griner?

Brittney Griner was detained by Russian officials in February after customs officials said they found cartridges of hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

On Wednesday the United States announced former Marine Trevor Reed was released from Russian custody via a prisoner swap after he had been detained for nearly three years.

His release immediately raised questions about the other two U.S. citizens detained in Russia, Paul Whelan and WNBA star Brittney Griner. Griner was taken into custody in February after customs officials said they found hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow.

What should Griner's supporters take from the news of Reed's release? Here's what we know following interviews with multiple U.S. Department of State officials, experts and sources close to Griner.

Does Reed's release affect Griner's case?

Our interviews resulted in two overarching points: first, there are huge differences in their cases, which make direct comparisons unhelpful; second, there's a ray of hope for Griner.

The promising news for Griner is that Reed's release means there is still an open channel of communication between U.S. and Russian officials, despite the ongoing war in Ukraine. If Griner's case advances to the point where the United States needs to strike a deal for her return, then there's seemingly an avenue to strike that deal. A source close to Griner said her team sees Reed's release as "encouraging," and that they feel it puts them closer to pushing the White House to reach a deal for her release.

How do their cases differ?

Sources cautioned that Griner's case is a long way from resolution. Understanding her situation means understanding the U.S. law that determines how the government will respond, the Levinson Act.

The Levinson Act was enacted with strong bipartisan support in December 2020, after both Reed and Whelan had been detained. The law establishes a list of criteria to determine whether someone is being held abroad wrongfully, including whether they're being given due process or there is evidence the person is innocent. And that's where Griner's case diverges from Reed's and Whelan's.

Reed, who was accused of punching a police officer in Moscow, and Whelan, accused of espionage, were both tried and convicted in cases that the U.S. government has called travesties of justice. U.S. officials haven't yet commented on the accusations made against Griner. Last month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, "In Brittney's case .... what I can tell you is that we're in very active contact with her team, with the WNBA as well as with her lawyers and other representatives."

In Reed's and Whalen's cases, experts have said that Russia was seeking to trade them for Russians who were being held in U.S. prisons, which is what happened with Reed after months of negotiations: Reed was traded for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who was convicted for conspiracy to smuggle drugs into the U.S.

U.S. officials, sensitive to the fact that Whelan and Griner are still in custody, also went to lengths Wednesday to make it clear that Reed's case was unique, largely because of his health problems. In a briefing Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, "Our overriding priority here was the safe return of Trevor Reed, knowing not only had he been held against his will for too long, but that his health condition required urgent treatment." Reed's parents have accused Russian officials of failing to treat a case of tuberculosis they say he contracted there, and that he was badly injured while in custody.

How is the State Department handling Griner's case?

Because of how the State Department sees Reed and Whelan's cases -- classifying them as wrongfully detained -- they've been handled by the State Department's Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.

But Griner's case isn't there yet. She's still working her way through the Russian legal system, so her case is still being handled by the State Department's consular office, which monitors the treatment of any American held abroad. What happens over the next weeks and months will determine whether the government reclassifies her as a hostage.

While Reed and Whelan were detained more than two years ago, Griner has only been in custody since Feb. 17 and hasn't been formally charged yet. Her next hearing is May 19, but under Russian law she can be held for up to a year before trial, and there's a strong possibility her hearing will be postponed. When U.S. consular officials visited her last month, they found her to be in good condition.

What has Griner's family said about Reed's release?

In a statement posted on Instagram Wednesday, Griner's wife, Cherelle, said, "As I do everything in my power to get [Brittney] home, my heart is overflowing with joy for the Reed family. I do not personally know them, but I do know the pain of having your loved one detained in a foreign country. That level of pain is constant and can only be remedied by a safe return home. For the Reed family, that day is today. Welcome home Trevor, sending love to you and your family on this special day."

What now for Griner's case and her supporters?

Expect Griner's team slowly to become more vocal and to encourage others to do the same. Her inner circle has never been optimistic that she would win her release through the criminal justice system, but they have understood the State Department's advice that they let things play out in the short term without drawing too much attention.

The strategy has made sense, says Danielle Gilbert, an assistant professor of military and strategic studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

"The problem with increasing publicity is that it can raise the stakes," she says. "Making her seem more valuable only puts more power in the hands of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin and makes them have a higher bar for releasing her."

But Reed's release also means that team Griner sees a chance of a deal that they weren't sure existed. Now that it's clear there's an open channel between the countries, expect them to pressure the U.S. government to reach a deal.

Reed's family has been by far the most vocal, and they publicly sought a meeting with President Biden, which they finally got last month. Why shouldn't Griner's team do the same?

State Department sources say they understand why the Reed's parents fought to keep his story public, but argue that the family's pressure and their meeting with President Biden didn't make the difference in Trevor's release. The deal was in the works for months, and, again, Reed's poor health separated his case from the other two. They insist that President Biden and Secretary Blinken and all the people who work for them have all the motivation they need to get Americans out, but they also have to follow American law and their own policy.

The Griner, Reed and Whelan families have had one goal: get their loved ones home. The government has multiple goals: get those Americans out, don't elevate a hostile foreign leader, don't set a precedent that will endanger future Americans, don't be bullied into a deal that isn't in the national interest. Gilbert says there's another reason for the U.S. government to avoid being too publicly confrontational: "It takes away the possibility of an easy offramp for Vladimir Putin if that's what he's looking for," she says. "It takes away the possibility of saying this was a misunderstanding. There's no face saving (for Putin) if we elevate it to a national public issue."

What good would protesting do?

It's important to know whom protests would be intended to influence. No one thinks the efforts of the Reed family or WNBA players will sway the mind of Vladimir Putin. The point, numerous experts say, is to pressure the American government to make a deal.

"It's not intended to get Russia to do the right thing, it's to get the U.S. government to pay attention," says Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, who was held captive by the Iranian government for 544 days and has written extensively about his ordeal. "It's not a coincidence that when I met President Obama when I was released, he said, 'it was your brother and the Washington Post that never let us forget about you.'"

Rezaian says there is no reason for the Griners or anyone to stay silent.

"In all my time over the last five or six years since I got out, since I've been reporting on these cases of Americans who have been kidnapped, not one of the people who has fortunately been released has come to me and said 'I wish you hadn't spoken about me,'" he says. "At this point and time there's nothing to be gained by being quiet, and, really, the play here is what do you need to do to get the U.S. president to do what he needs to do to secure these Americans' release."

What if she's actually guilty?

In some ways, it doesn't matter. If the Russian government presents evidence that Griner did what she was accused of and even the American government agrees that it's incontrovertible, and the entire process is handled transparently, the U.S. government would not be able to consider her as someone who's been improperly detained. But that wouldn't change the fact that the Russian government has shown itself to be selective in how it applies the law and is open to trading prisoners. The reality, experts say, is that if Putin's government wants Griner in custody, she will remain in custody. If they're offered a deal they like, they will release her. In Putin's Russia, her guilt or innocence is a detail.

What should we look for in the coming weeks?

Keep an eye out for more statements from Griner's team, including encouragement for other athletes and celebrities to take up her cause.

But the real developments might be ones the public never sees. Gilbert says she looks for two signs to see whether someone's case is being taken seriously: One is the involvement of the Special Presidential Hostage Envoy -- which, again, won't happen unless and until the Levinson Act applies -- and the other is the possible involvement of former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who has worked for years as a private citizen to secure the release of hostages around the world. Richardson was active in the Reed negotiations, and Gilbert says it will be a good sign for Griner if he gets involved.

If the May 19 hearing shows American officials that Griner's rights are not being respected, or if the hearing is delayed again, numerous sources say, then you can expect the U.S. government to start speaking up as well.

Editor's note: This Q&A was updated Thursday with additional details.